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From the Vault: Stanford-USC 2007

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Remembering this heated rivalry and the true greatest upset of all time.

The Greatest Upset Ever
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Welcome back to The Vault. You’re reading part two of my recap of the Stanford-USC rivalry. I’ll be finishing up the history of this series as well as highlighting one of its most important games in recent memory.

If you haven’t read part one, you should check it out first. It goes through the early history of the Stanford-USC game and helps tell the story of how West Coast football rose to prominence. I talk about the legendary Pop Warner and Howard Jones, who brought their respective programs to the peak of college football, and how their careers shaped which direction each school would follow.

The Warner-Jones era was the first and perhaps greatest period in the rivalry. From 1925 to 1935, Stanford and USC combined to win nine out of eleven PCC Championships. Stanford won their only national title in 1926 and USC began stocking their trophy case just a few years later. Warner and his successors held their own against USC every once in a while, but Howard Jones had already built the Trojans into the power we know them as today by the mid-1930’s. Stanford’s Clark Shaughnessy engineered a 10-0 team in 1940, but left after the following season. Howard Jones, died before the 1942 season, leaving both programs an opportunity to redefine themselves as the decade began.

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This is where we begin our story. Stanford promoted Shaughnessy assistant Marchmont Schwartz and USC had basketball and baseball coach Sam Berry fill in for Jones before settling on Jeff Cravath. Stanford shut down their football program for the duration of WWII, a big blow to any rebuilding effort. USC went back to being the premier program in the PCC. The Trojans won four conference titles in five years from 1943 to 1947. Still, Cravath was forced to resign at the end of the decade following a couple of difficult seasons.

The Stanford-USC rivalry was inconsequential in the 1940’s, as Stanford was rather inconsequential. The 1950’s played out in much the same way. Chuck Taylor inherited the Indians from Schwartz in 1950 and immediately won the PCC. It would be his most successful season. Jess Hill was his opposite in Los Angeles. Hill’s Trojan teams were usually good and his 10-1 season in 1952 nearly won them a national championship. Both men got kicked upstairs in the late 50’s when they became the athletic directors of their respective schools. Coincidentally, Taylor and Hill are the only ever men to have gone to a Rose Bowl as a player, coach, and then oversee a Rose Bowl team as an athletic director.

Neither Stanford nor USC dominated the rivalry in the 1950’s but the game was never all that important. After Hill’s two Rose Bowl teams in the early 50’s, both the Trojans and Indians remained in the middle or lower part of the PCC standings for the rest of the decade while the conference was dominated by the likes of UCLA and Oregon State. The PCC dissolved in scandal following the 1958 season. The four California members plus Washington formed the Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU for short), the forerunner of today’s PAC-12. Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington State would join in 1964, making the PAC-8.

After the short and disappointing stint of Don Clark, USC hired John McKay to coach the Trojans in the 1960 season. McKay is regarded as the greatest of all great Southern California head coaches and he instantly began to torment Stanford and the rest of the league. After two middling seasons, USC was loaded for bear in 1962. The Trojans stormed through the AAWU and defeated every opponent they played by more than a touchdown and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to claim their first national championship since 1939. Southern Cal won six conference titles in eight years from ’62 to ’69, and added a second national championship in 1967 led by star running back O.J. Simpson.

John McKay and his mighty Trojans were the scourge of Stanford football.
George Brich/Associated Press

USC massacred Stanford in this era and won every game they played against the Indians from 1958 to 1969. The Indians hired John Ralston in 1963 following the disastrous stint of Jack Curtice. Ralston would go on to tie Pop Warner as the longest tenured coach in Stanford history. He built the Indians up from nothing and they slowly began to improve throughout the 1960’s, but they were always under Southern California’s thumb. In 1967, the #1 Trojans completely shut down Stanford 30-0 at the Coliseum, it was the worst loss they’d suffered in Los Angeles since 1939.

1968 was the beginning of what should be called the second peak of the Stanford-USC rivalry. The Trojans were riding high as one of the best college football teams in the country year in and year out, having just won a national championship the year before and would add a Heisman for Simpson in his final year. They would, however, run into trouble against Stanford. The 3-0 Indians hosted the 3-0 Trojans and they came out to win. Jim Plunkett was now under center and the impact was immediate. Plunkett was a phenom and his talent combined with an improved defense made the Indians a force to be reckoned with. Still, it just wasn’t enough. In a titanic struggle, #2 USC escaped Palo Alto by the skin of their teeth. The #14 Indians went into a spiral and wouldn’t win another game until November, finishing 6-3-1. USC stumbled at the end the season, the 9-0 Trojans tied #9 Notre Dame to end the year then lost the Rose Bowl to Ohio State, failing to defend their crown.

For Stanford fans old enough to remember, the 1969 game against USC must go down as one of the most bitter defeats in team history, right up there with The Play. The Indians began the season ranked, a very rare treat, but lost their previous game to Purdue to fall to 2-1 and #14 when they visited the Coliseum to play the 3-0, 4th ranked Trojans. O.J Simpson was no longer with Southern Cal and had moved on to the NFL, but Stanford still had Jim Plunkett. The Indians led 24-22 in the final minutes of the game and SC had no timeouts to spare, but a last minute desperation drive, including a converted 4th and 5, put the game in the balance. USC’s final first down left only one second on the clock and kicker Ron Ayala drilled a field goal after time expired to seal a 26-24 victory for the Trojans. It was a crushing defeat and the twelfth in a row that SC had inflicted on Stanford. The Trojans cruised through the rest of the season and wrapped up the year with their fourth consecutive Rose Bowl appearance. The Trojans’ tie to Notre Dame the next week prevented them from claiming a national title. The Indians ended the season 7-2-1. Neither team had lost a game since SC had beaten Stanford.

There was only one game circled on the calendar in 1970. Stanford was rabid, with a furious passion to beat USC that only losing a lot, losing badly, and losing in heartbreaking fashion can do to a team and fan base. It was supposed to be a matchup between #3 Stanford and #4 USC, but the Indians once again lost to Purdue in the preceding week. The crowd at Stanford Stadium (which seated 86,000 at the time) was filled to capacity, and it outsold every USC home game that year. It was a close contest, but the Indians led from the first score. Stanford took a 14-0 lead into the half and ended with a 24-14 home victory. How sweet it was. The Indians climbed to 6th in the polls until losing at the end of the year to Air Force and Cal. Though they could no longer hope to win a national championship, they could take it away from another. Stanford only had one conference loss, so they were able to claim the PAC-8 title and play in their first Rose Bowl in nearly two decades. They beat undefeated Ohio State to push the Buckeyes out of the championship picture. Jim Plunkett, the best quarterback in the country, won Stanford’s only Heisman Trophy for his performance that year. The loss to Stanford put USC into a death spiral. The Trojans would lose three more times and end the year 6-4-1, their worst mark in over a decade.

Jim Plunkett finally beats the Trojans.
InsideUSC

1971 was a similar story. Though Plunkett was gone, Stanford once again defeated USC, this time 33-18 and this time at the LA Coliseum. The Indians once again finished atop the PAC-8 (6-1 with a loss to Wazzu) but once again had suffered two non-conference losses that kept them out of the championship picture. Once again, Stanford faced an undefeated Big Ten power in the Rose Bowl, this time it was Michigan. Once again, Stanford won. Once again, USC finished the year 6-4-1.

In football, if you don’t root for a perennial power like a USC or a Notre Dame, you learn to lionize the deeds of a few people that happened in one or two short and fleeting moments. Stanford’s moment atop the PAC-8 was swift, and it came crashing down as fast as it had started. John Ralston, with not one but two straight wins over his hated counterpart John McKay, left after the second Rose Bowl to coach the Denver Broncos. Ralston had dutifully built up the Indians for nine years and with that long awaited success came greater opportunity elsewhere. The reigns passed to his assistant Jack Christiansen, but the magic was gone. Ralston had left, and so did most of the best players on his two Rose Bowl teams. The newly renamed Cardinals, yes, Cardinals (until 1982) went a pedestrian 6-5. Meanwhile, USC fielded what is considered one of the best college football teams of all time. The Trojans stormed through the season, defeating every opponent by more than a touchdown (the only team to get within single digits was Stanford) before dispatching Ohio State 42-17 in the Rose Bowl to claim their third national championship under McKay.

John McKay would add another championship in 1974, bringing his count to four national titles in 13 seasons. He would depart after the 1975 campaign, following Ralston to the NFL where he coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into existence. McKay’s successor, John Robinson, was nearly as successful. Robinson took USC to the Rose Bowl in three of his first four seasons and won a national championship 1978. These were the dark days of the Stanford-SC rivalry. After scoring a victory in John McKay’s lackluster final season, Cardinal(s) wouldn’t beat the Trojans until 1991.

That doesn’t mean they lost every game they played. No, there was one tie in this period to break the monotony. In 1979, a completely mediocre Stanford Cardinals team tied #1 USC 21-21 in the Coliseum. The loss was stunning, as many thought this USC squad was even better than that monstrous 1978 team. The blemish on their record prevented the Trojans from claiming a second consecutive national championship.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of Stanford’s 15 year drought against USC was that the Trojans weren’t all that good for at least half of it. Robinson only lasted eight years at Troy before bolting to the NFL to coach the Rams after his grip on the league slipped. Stanford never beat Robinson, and they never beat his completely underwhelming replacement Ted Tollner. Five Stanford coaches tried and failed to beat a great, and then completely average USC team with no success. Most of the losses weren’t even close, with Stanford’s all-time worse loss to the Trojans coming in 1977 in a 49-0 bloodletting. It was like a botched ritual sacrifice, taking a guaranteed loss every season but without gaining favor from the football gods. Stanford had John Elway at quarterback and lost a combined 121-68 to SC in his four seasons, though he did help secure that tie in 1979 as a freshman.

Then, finally, the streak ended. Dennis Green, who nearly became the sixth Stanford coach in a row to never beat USC, finally claimed victory in a 24-21 triumph at the Coliseum (before leaving to coach in the NFL). It wasn’t that the 8-4 Cardinal were particularly good that season, USC just bottomed out at 3-8. The 90’s were a good decade for Stanford in the rivalry. With USC having up and down years (even going so far as to hire an over the hill John Robinson) the Cardinal took advantage, winning six out of eleven games from 1991 to 2001. Tyrone Willingham’s teams went 4-3 against the Trojans. It was the first winning record a Stanford coach had against USC since Chuck Taylor’s own 4-3 mark nearly 40 years prior.

Pete Carroll’s arrival at USC was bad news. The Trojans had been asleep at the wheel for nearly two decades but Carroll had finally woken them up. In just two seasons they went from being completely mediocre to probably the best team in college football by the end of 2002. Carroll’s arrival coincided with Willigham’s departure. The Trojans ignited a new winning streak over the Cardinal, who were slipping into a funk that they hadn’t experienced in a long time. Stanford’s disastrous six year spell under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris undid Willingham’s modest success and relegated the Cardinal to a football backwater just as USC was unfurling its banners. Terrible loss followed terrible loss. 49-17 in 2002, 44-21 in 2003, a close 31-28 loss in ’04 was followed by a 51-21 beatdown the next year. It all culminated in 2006, where a Trojan squad that finished the year 11-2 shut out a 1-11 Stanford Cardinal team 42-0 at home. The nightmare was repeating itself. Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson, Pete Carroll. The titles, the Rose Bowls, the Heismans, the dynasty, that damned march every first down! It was all coming back and it threatened to inexorably continue. Stanford was six years into a losing streak to their intolerable oppressor and it threatened to go on forever.

But then…

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I’m not here to tell give you a full account of the 2007 game between Stanford and USC. As part of SBNation’s coverage remembering the 2007 season ten years later (which is absolutely fantastic and you should totally check out), Rule of Tree submitted some fine recollections of what, despite recent events, I still consider to be the greatest upset of all time. You can read those other articles here.

I’m here to talk about the feelings that coursed through Stanford fans on October 6th, 2007 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the 41 point Vegas underdog Cardinal took on the nigh-invincible USC machine. With all that has happened in recent years, it is sometimes difficult to remember just how much of a watershed moment this was for both programs and especially for Stanford.

The University of Southern California was at the peak of their powers. In 2002, they ended so hot that they would have had a decent chance at winning the BCS Championship Game had they been able to play in it. They were left out yet again in 2003 but were still awarded the AP Poll’s national title over LSU. In 2004 they destroyed Oklahoma by the biggest margin of victory in the history of the BCS Championship Game. 2005 saw the legendary meeting with the Texas Longhorns that saw to Trojans fall at the last minute. They were just as good in 2006 but a couple of cruel upsets once again kept them out of the BCS title game. Still, they were the new incarnation of the USC of old, every year a PAC-10 Championship and every year a Rose Bowl, if they won a national title that was icing on the cake. They had a team mostly made up of four and five star talent had way more resources than everyone else in the conference so they would keep that advantage.

In the preseason, Pete Carroll called the 2007 Trojans the most competitive team he’d had at USC. They had won 35 straight home games, having not lost in the Coliseum since 2001, a 16-21 defeat to Stanford in Ty Willingham’s last year. John David Booty, who would turn out to be the least successful of Carroll’s quarterbacks in his NFL career, was still a monster in college. He was a Heisman favorite and would end his career with a spotless 9-0 record against ranked teams. The rest of the team was just as talented and a large number of them went on to have NFL careers.

Stanford wasn’t just under the radar, they were barely worth mentioning. They had a curiosity in first year head coach Jim Harbaugh, who had never led an FBS team before 2007. Harbaugh was famous for his time as a quarterback at Michigan and had a long career in the NFL. He coached the University of San Diego to consecutive Pioneer League championships in 2005 and 2006 but that was the extent of his head coaching experience. When Harbaugh was offered the Stanford job he consulted with his passing coordinator, Cardinal alum David Shaw. Shaw was one of the few who believed that Stanford could win with the right talent and scheme and he told Harbaugh as much. Harbaugh took Shaw with him to become the Cardinal’s offensive coordinator. Harbaugh also brought in Scott Shafer as the DC, D.J. Durkin as defensive ends/special team coordinator, and family friend Willie Taggart as running backs coach.

Harbaugh had the drive and enthusiasm to sell Stanford as a power in the making, but in 2007 nobody was buying. He also inherited what was considered at the time a bare cupboard. Perhaps some of the guys on the 2007 Cardinal would have made it to the NFL, but it was under Harbaugh that these players shone. The Cardinal had Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin, both young and inexperienced at the time, but they would develop into NFL stars. Sophomore Toby Gerhart was also on the 2007 squad, but he was hurt for most of the season. Owen Marecic, Bo McNally, Ryan Whalen, and Nate Whitaker were all on the 2007 roster. They would all become key assets during the Harbaugh era. There was also Tavita Pritchard, who was the backup QB behind senior T.C. Ostrander. Ostrander had suffered a freak seizure just days before the game with USC, throwing Pritchard into the spotlight. He made the first start of his career against the best team he would ever face.

To say that the odds were slim is an understatement. It’s a surprise that Vegas released any odds at all when they declared Stanford 41 point underdogs. It was one less point than the 42 margin of victory that the Trojans poured on the Cardinal the year before in Palo Alto. Stanford was just 1-3, and were all set up to be steamrolled by the undefeated Trojans. What Vegas didn’t know was that John David Booty had a broken finger in his throwing hand. Perhaps if Pete Carroll put sophomore Mark Sanchez in to allow Booty’s finger to heal the game would have gone differently. He didn’t.

85,000 people crowded into the LA Coliseum in the late afternoon on October 6, 2007. They expected a massacre, a laugher, the triumph for the Men of Troy. They didn’t expect a close game, nobody did. It was very surprising when first half turned into a defensive struggle. USC only led 9-0 at the half. The Trojans had kicked a field goal on their second possession and in the middle of the second quarter Chauncey Washington broke through the Stanford endzone. Kicker David Buehler’s point after attempt was blocked, nobody knew how pivotal it would be. Southern Cal ended the half with a textbook drive. A slow march down the field maddeningly punctuated by the band on every first down. However, the tenacious Stanford defense was doggedly hounding them every step of the way. It all culminated with a goal line stand that saw Chauncey Washington stood up at the 1 yard line to turn the ball over on downs with eight seconds left in the half.

Stanford v USC
Pete Carroll and USC were caught by surprise.
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

This shocking turn of events suddenly created a real anxiety among the crowd. This game wasn’t going the way it was supposed to, some of the confidence was gone. It was hard to imagine the Cardinal actually winning. Stanford had yet to find the endzone and quarterback Tavita Pritchard was struggling mightily in the face of SC’s vaunted defense. To paraphrase John McKay, the Cardinal couldn’t win if they couldn’t score. Still, the Trojans were in a dogfight by a supremely motivated opponent.

The third quarter is when the upset alarm bells really started to ring. The Stanford defense kept up with their smothering Southern Cal opposite and forced another punt. Then, Austin Yancy intercepted Booty on the Trojans’ second possession and quickly returned it for a touchdown. On their next drive, SC receiver Fred Davis fumbled the ball. The Trojan defense one again bailed them out, but once again Booty was picked off by Taylor Mays. On Stanford’s ensuing drive Pritchard was picked off on USC’s 18 yard line, erasing what should have been a go ahead scoring drive.

The Trojans found the endzone more than halfway through the third, as Booty’s pass to Fred Davis went for 63 yards, this time with no blocked point after. Shockingly, Stanford responded. The Cardinal put together a big drive to close out the third, and in less time than the Trojans had taken. As the teams switched sides and the final quarter began, on his second attempt, Anthony Kimble launched himself into the endzone to pull Stanford within two once more. The score was 16-14 USC. The Trojans put together another exemplary drive to go ahead 23-14. Stanford’s Derek Belch managed a field goal on the next possession to keep the Cardinal within a touchdown.

With five minutes left in the game, everything went off the rails. USC attempted to march straight down the field once more but Booty was being pressured a great deal. On 3rd and 19 following a sack, Booty coughed up a third interception, this time to Wopamo Osaisai. Stanford now held the ball on USC’s 45 with 2:50 left to play. Despite the short field, it was a grueling drive in which the USC defense tried everything to quash Stanford’s hopes, everything but play clean. A pass interference penalty put Stanford on the 30, and the Cardinal slowly and painfully made their way closer and closer to the endzone. They had managed a first down to bring them to the SC 19 yard line, but after a holding call and a couple of incomplete passes they found themselves at 4th and 20 on the Trojan 29 yard line. It all came down to a Pritchard strike, right to a leaping Richard Sherman who was hit before he even touched the ground. After a lengthy review, the ball was spotted just past the first down mark.

Stanford was now on the USC 9 yard line with a full set of downs and one timeout. There was a minute and 39 seconds left and the Trojans held a six point lead. Tavita Pritchard scrambled four yards on first down and threw a pass out of the endzone on the second. Pritchard’s second pass attempt to Evan Moore was knocked away. A substitution penalty put Stanford back five yards. It was now 4th and 10, 54 seconds left, and each team had burned all of their timeouts. The upset hung in the balance as Pritchard’s pass arced over the Trojans defenders and into Mark Bradford’s hands in the far left corner of the endzone. It was so improbable that television announcer Ron Thulin screamed “Touchdown USC!” as Bradford came down with the ball. Color commentator Kelly Stouffer wondered aloud if Stanford would go for two even though the game was already tied at 23. Belch’s point after sent the Cardinal ahead 24-23, their first lead of the game.

Mark Bradford puts Stanford ahead 24-23.
Daily Trojan File Photo

It wasn’t over. There were still 45 seconds left and thanks to a facemask penalty USC started on their 40 yard line. The defense came through. Poor John David Booty was sacked, threw two incomplete passes, and on 4th and 17 was intercepted for the fourth time, this time Bo McNally. Pritchard took a knee and completed the biggest upset in Stanford history. Jim Harbaugh was completely unfazed as he was doused with water while running onto the field, arms outstretched and yelling wildly.

And the refrain, how sweet it was. Stanford’s upset was one of the most spectacular in football history. In what became known as “the year of the upset,” Stanford’s victory over USC stands tall. Appalachian State’s victory over Michigan is still the one most remembered because it happened in Week 1 and the blocked field goal to close the game was so iconic. Still, App State was probably a better team than Stanford even though they were in the FCS, and UM was certainly worse than the Trojans that year.

Just this past week, Stanford’s victory over USC has been supplanted as the biggest point spread upset in history, as UNLV lost to Howard despite being 45 point favorites. My only response to that is to ignore it completely. When you look at the Stanford-USC game and the impact it had on the whole sport that season and both programs to this day, there’s no doubt which game was more important.

Tavita Pritchard, the unlikely conqueror of Troy.
AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Despite all of the great games that Stanford and USC have played in this last decade, 2007 still stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is still the only time that the game immediately effected the national championship race. If the Trojans hadn’t lost, they’d have played and likely beat Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game.

The Southern California dynasty lasted just one more year. The 2008 Trojans once again were one of the best teams in the country, finishing the year 12-1 with yet another Rose Bowl victory, their third in a row, to go along with their seventh consecutive PAC-10 championship. It all crashed down following a disappointing 2009 season. Carroll left for the NFL where he’d form an unlikely partnership with Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin on the Seattle Seahawks. Then, the Trojans were slammed by the NCAA for the Reggie Bush scandal that had taken place half a decade before. USC was gutted and has yet to reclaim their former glory.

The win in 2007 was manifestly life-changing to the Stanford program. The Cardinal rebuilt themselves under Jim Harbaugh in four short years. They went from 1-11 in 2006 to 12-1 in 2010. Harbaugh left, but David Shaw has dutifully kept the Cardinal among college football’s elite ever since. Stanford has been to five New Year’s Six Bowls in seven years and have always been a factor in the PAC-12 race.

We have entered a third peak of the Stanford-USC rivalry. Like the Warner-Jones and McKay-Ralston peaks before, this game has once again become the PAC-12’s premier showcase of talent and is easily the biggest rivalry that the conference has to offer. There is one big difference. Warner and Ralston lost to USC more than they won. Since the upset, USC has opted for a more historically accurate representation of Troy, they’ve lost. The 24-23 victory shattered USC’s hold over Stanford. The Cardinal have won eight of their last eleven games against the Trojans, easily their most dominant stretch over SC in the history of the rivalry. Harbaugh left with a 3-1 record over the USC and Shaw is currently 5-2. No pair of coaches has held winning records over the Trojans since Tiny Thornhill and Clark Shaughnessy did in the years before WWII.

Ask any Stanford fan what the USC game means to them and you’ll get a variety of responses, most of them emotional and probably all of them negative. They’ll remember all of the losses and the decades of frustration with only a few faint glimpses of success to punctuate the oppressing darkness, like a couple of stars in the hazy Los Angeles sky. Stanford fans will tell you that they never would have imagined this turn of events on the morning of October 6th, 2007. They’ll also tell you that they’ve never been happier.

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Once again, I want to thank you all for joining me in The Vault. I promise that not every post will be a giant behemoth like this, but I had to do something special for the USC game. I hope I did an adequate job explaining the frustration as well as the exaltation that this rivalry has brought us. I’ll catch you next week, thank you for reading.

Go Stanford. Beat USC.